Life as an artist continues to evolve for choreographer Bill Evans, since five years ago when Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) presented a concert of his works. Now 82, the Lehi, Utah, native still teaches and performs as well as choreographs new works. He remains as busy as ever.
Evans is a paragon of wisdom in harmonizing body and mind to remain active as an artist, contributor, mentor and choreographer for as long as humanly possible. He has moved from Providence, Rhode Island to Port Townsend, Washington, where his Evans Somatic Dance Institute is now based. Among the most recent works he has set is Colony, with music by Inlakesh, a dance inspired by New Zealand’s Maori culture. He also performed Claire Porter’s work, Interview, described as “a hilarious and poignant deconstruction of a professional job interview.” In 2021, he choreographed a solo Tales from the Wizard for E.E. Balcos, a Filipino dance artist who is on the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Evans used Samuel Barber’s suite of the ten short pieces of Hermit Songs as his musical inspiration for that work. And, the fine arts library at The University of Utah will eventually have his archives, which includes documenting his experiences and the more than 300 works he has created throughout his career.
To open its 57th season, RDT will present Quadruple Bill (plus) featuring works by Evans, including one that he created in his time as a performer and choreographer during the company’s earliest years and which was last performed at an RDT concert in 1985. The concert will have three performances: Sept. 29-Oct. 1, at 7:30 p.m. in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre in the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts.
In addition to a performance by Evans, highlighting rhythm tap and his internationally acclaimed skills as a tap dancer, the concert will feature Petroglyphs, an update on his 1996 composition which was originally inspired by southern Utah’s Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. Evans was moved to restage and retitle the piece from its original Naturescape Unfolding, after it was mentioned how closely the choreographed movement reminds of petroglyphs. While archaeologists continue to investigate how to translate the Utah petroglyphs, in the meantime, one could rely on educated guesses about the significance, overlap and interactions of the natural, spirit and celestial worlds, which anchor the cultural foundations during various historical phases of Indigenous peoples who thrived in the region. They include the Archaic Indian, Fremont and Anasazi and Ute Indian groups. Evans instinctively sets the various sections of this work to emulate these worlds. Indeed, after viewing a segment at a recent public rehearsal, it is easy to see how the dancers have achieved a compelling visual representation of Evans’ desired artistic vision.
Two pieces that were performed at the 2017 concert will be reprised. One is Suite Benny, originally set in 1985 and reconstructed in 2017, which The Utah Review previously described as an infectiously fun and impressively executed piece of ensemble work, as the dancers reflected the right mood of the music featuring songs by Edgar Sampson and Louis Prima, in classic recordings by Benny Goodman and his orchestra. Sassy, smart and intimate in harmony and style, it is a rapturous nostalgic tribute to one of America’s great dance traditions. The other is one of RDT’s most popular pieces it takes on tours: Crippled Up Blues … and other tales of Deseret, the dance version of a historical album celebrating the land of Deseret, accompanied by a suite of songs composed and performed by the locally based group 3hattrio. Evans created the work in 2015 to celebrate RDT’s golden anniversary.
And, then there is the work from 1973, which will be performed for the first time by RDT since 1985. Evans choreographed Hard Times, a work using classic Americana folk tunes including Virginia reels and songs from the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky, which interprets images of rural families struggling to survive The Great Depression.
When the work was premiered by Evans and his colleagues, RDT dance artists Ruth Jean Post and Manzell Senters, it caused quite a stir and two different sets of reactions by audiences. Evans set the work to dislodge widely referenced hillbilly stereotypes as lazy and outdated. Hard Times was set to envision anew the Appalachian peoples as no less emotionally intelligent or resilient in ensuring their cultural folkways and relationships could withstand the economic challenges of surviving the Depression.
In an interview with The Utah Review, Evans recalls how some audiences members nervously laughed at various moments, attempting to see the piece as more entertaining while others debated outside the hall that Hard Times was a complex, deep, humane reconsideration of people who were no different than the so-called average or “normal” American, while hoping to survive The Great Depression and The Dust Bowl era. Evans says he wanted to dig below the surface for an emotional epiphany. For example, in a duet, the audience will see a couple who depend upon each other to survive their abject conditions of poverty but even as they cling to each other, they also lash out at each other in frustration and uncertainty. “There have been many reasons why this work bas made audiences uncomfortable,” Evans says, adding that he looks forward to seeing how an audience in 2022 reacts, compared to those who saw the work in 1973 or 1985.
As previously highlighted in The Utah Review, Evans never forgets one of his earliest artistic homes. Even after he left Utah in the mid-1970s, he has returned frequently to the Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT), where he danced and choreographed for seven years during the earliest phase of RDT’s (ongoing) revolutionary experiment as an ‘artistic democracy.’ Twenty works by him are in RDT’s repertoire and Evans consulted with his longtime friend, Linda Smith, co-founder and executive artistic director of RDT, to select works for the latest concert.
Evans and Smith went to college together. “We were considered renegades,” Evans told The Utah Review in 2017, explaining how his interests spanned ballet, modern dance, and other entertainment classics such as tap dance. It was before the time that dance schools finally would cast aside genre limitations, stylistic distinctions and artistic boundaries to allow students to explore both ballet and modern dance simultaneously. In fact, students at the time who wanted to pursue modern dance had to pass a women’s physical education course – and that included Evans.
To help prepare for this concert, Evans has spent a good portion of the summer and early fall to work with RDT’s nine dancers. After a recent public rehearsal, Evans mentioned how immensely satisfying it has been to see the latest generation of dancers carry the torch of RDT’s consistently expanding legacy. To wit, a comment from his 2017 interview: “We were working day and night during the late 1960s and early 1970s and learning so much from so many different choreographers who came to us in Utah,” he recalls. “We grew so much individually and as an ensemble.” Thus, he sees RDT’s legacy like a living historical document, which always is absorbing new experiences and new artists. For example, compared to 2017, Evans is working this year with a group that includes male dancers who were not in RDT then. ”The dancers get it and they realize that the legacy will always be larger than the works and choreographers who have come through RDT and they have profound respect for that legacy,” he says.
Even in its earliest years, the nation’s oldest repertory dance theatre already had lived up to the 1966 expectations encumbered in the precedent-setting Rockefeller Foundation grant, which set the company in motion. A 1975 New York Times article about Salt Lake City’s strength in dance highlighted RDT and its then recent performances in the Big Apple, described variously as “astonish[ing] New York with a wide‐eyed, home‐grown company, a style distinctly Western, a ruggedly individual repertory” and “as striking as any modern dance soloists and principals you would find on Broadway or its environs.”
Understandably, RDT has billed this latest concert about an artist “more than 80 years in the making.” Indeed, Evans has stood out as one of RDT’s most widely known alumni. After leaving RDT, he founded his own dance company in 1975, which performed in every state and 24 countries, becoming one of the most widely booked American dance institutions during the 1970s and 1980s. A Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, he built upon the platform of the Laban/Bartenieff Movement System to articulate his own movement language, the Evans Somatic Dance Technique, which is now part of his institute in Port Townsend.
During the pandemic, he extensively used Zoom. ”I never thought I would be a Zoom teacher,” he says, adding that one of the takeaways was that he created a set of short movement phrases for a Winnipeg dancer as part of a new composition. In Port Townsend, he also has set work for a group of dancers, ranging in age from their thirties to their sixties — another testament about adapting as the body ages but always looking for ways to continue performing and creating work. And just as Petroglyphs honors Utah’s natural wonders, he now uses the Olympic Mountains and the Cascade Mountains as his natural inspirations. He adds that it reminds him of the magnificent view he had of Mount Timpanogos during his boyhood days in Lehi.
His work in recent years also has built on his lifelong engagement with tap, including those by some of the best known Black artists in the tradition. Other influences have included the Argentinian tango, the interplay of jazz and Latin rhythms and vocals. The “plus” on this concert will feature Evans performing a short piece, Blues for My Father, from 1987.
For tickets and more information, see the RDT website.